7 Rules of Ethical SEO to Respect

ethics *

Do you practice SEO? You probably do! Every time you publish something on social media or your website you do SEO!

You probably consider headlines and keywords and want to get noticed or found.

This is SEO or search engine optimization according to the old school definition. Is it ethical though?

In essence it’s about findability and visibility online. Yet many people quickly resort to “tricks“.

They want to trick Google, Facebook or whatever algorithm is assessing the importance of their words.

Tricking algorithms and thus people is of course unethical. Thus the term ethical or “white hat” SEO has been coined.


What is Ethics and How Does it Work?

Ethics often consists of unwritten rules. Those rules – while not being official laws enforced by governments  – allow us to live together in peace and prosperity.

In church we also get reminded of what is right or wrong. While laws and religions prevent us from inflicting the most obvious harm on each other

the deeper underlying ethics of civilization make us what we are, humans.

So ethics is the underlying fabric of our society. Without it we would go back to the stone age. It works almost unconsciously by now. You know that

  • cheating
  • stealing
  • killing

is wrong. Most people do not need law enforcement to keep them from doing it. Yet, often cheating is hard to spot.

People are more prone to cheat when they think they can get away with it. On the fast developing Web it’s frequent.

I often have been dissatisfied with the term ethical SEO for being a bad synonym for white hat SEO which only means “not cheating the search engines”.

Ethical SEO must be more than following search engine guidelines if we want to take ethics seriously.

During my career I have been approached by numerous potential clients I was not quite happy to work with.

These prospects were not only the usual online poker or escorts type of businesses that approached me quite frequently. The cases were a little more complicated.


From Rejected Clients to Best Practices

I can’t retell the stories of all the clients I have rejected or ignored for ethical reasons over the years.

Instead I derived some of the 7 rules of ethical SEO to respect from the many shady business offers.

You could also call them best practices as they are derived from over a decade of business practices with often painful decisions.

  1. Don’t work for people who harm others, like weapons manufacturers, and those who work together with them
  2. Don’t work for people who compete with your existing or former clients (or at least not shortly after)
  3. Don’t keep on selling services that do not work anymore or are insufficient by now e.g. search engine submission, meta tag optimization, link exchange
  4. Don’t offer automated link building or social media promotion (as people on social media frown upon it)
  5. Don’t offer any spammy or low level SEO technique like blog commenting as a link building e.g.
  6. Don’t work for companies that exploit their workers or users or treat them in a demeaning way
  7. Don’t work for industries you do not believe in or are in your opinion harmful for humans, animals or the planet

You could also express it more positively Instead of “don’t work for industries yo do not believe in” you could say “work for industries you believe in”.

You could work for those who help others instead of harming them. There are always choices. You can do the right thing or make more money and feel bad about it.


Potential Clients/Jobs I Have Rejected

Now that we have the rules let’s recount just a few clients I rejected or flatly ignored for ethical reasons:

When I was already “going vegan” but still just a vegetarian with some relapses to being flexitarian an old acquaintance suggested we work together.

He had this client who needed SEO. When he sent me the mail message with the link I had to almost puke. It was chicken factory farming.

Many vegans are vegan for ethical reasons.

Even though I wasn’t even vegan yet and very broke I couldn’t accept money for killing sentient beings on a massive scale.

When a new social media hype took over the news – a video site called TikTok you probably know by now – they were frantically looking for a content strategist to join their German team. They even paid the taxi home after night shifts!

I’ve read a lot about TikTok and how they secretly track their users, even kids, and send the data back home where the Chinese regime has access to it.

It seems the Facebook data collection business model is timid in contrast!

TikTok has also been discriminating against “ugly” users, that is disabled, old or simply not wealthy enough people.

When a recruiter approached me on LinkedIn I couldn’t force myself to respond even though I really could have used a full-time job at that time.

The first rule on top of the list also applies to dictatorships.

A large international marketing agency wanted me for “one of several jobs” I was a match for. The catch: I’d have to move to UAE. They’d even pay for that!

You may not know it but the UAE or United Arab Emirates are an absolute monarchy ruled by same family for around 200 years!

I had to flee a tyranny when I was a kid and learned my lesson ever since.

The UAE are among the worst countries when it comes to digital freedom according to a recent study. You can’t even use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) for online privacy there. It’s illegal!

In a monarchy “content is king” indeed. When you’re discontent you many end up in prison or executed.

The young, hip and sexy Instagram influencers don’t care and depict Dubai as the place to be. I’m indeed too old and I know too much.

Indeed it’s by now 40 years ago that martial law has been established in Poland when I was a kid.

My father was stuck in Germany as the borders have been closed and tanks have been patrolling the streets.

A few years later we fled the still undemocratic country to reunite with my father in Berlin which was part of West Germany back then.


Why Respect These Rules

Now the rules are not unwritten anymore. Respecting by them is very difficult at times. Often money was tight and I had to think very long before saying “no”.

It’s like Jesus said, everybody sins from time to time: “who is without sin shall throw the first stone“.

You can at least try to abide by those 7 rules of ethical SEO though.

You don’t have to work for everybody and do everything for money.

Always consider your options before agreeing to cooperate with someone.

Why should you limit yourself to ethical business practices?

I believe that supporting harmful businesses will sooner or later harm you or people close to you. Work for tobacco companies today and watch a family member die of cancer tomorrow.

Support a company that is bad for the environment and see your home devastated by the outcome of climate change next.

The time you spend on an unethical project could b´have been used more wisely. Why not work for that non-profit that aims to stop climate change instead?

* (CC BY-SA 2.0) Creative Commons image by Aditya Doshi